While I didn’t know it when I left New York City in 2002 to live in China, this would be the backpack that would hold all my worldly possessions:
Let’s back up a bit. I lived in New York City for three years after college. It started with an internship teaching acting and scriptwriting in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn as part of an education outreach program through WP Theatre, an off-Broadway theater company dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting the work of female-identified and trans* theater artists at every stage in their careers. It was as wonderful as it sounds. This internship allowed me to complete my Theatre Arts program at Linfield College (in addition to my Classical Music Performance major), and it started me down the fantastical winding road known as “the rest of my life.”
After the internship with WP Theatre, I became increasingly involved in community organizing in Brooklyn for reasons I will likely share in a future post. We organized to oppose a power plant and a waste transfer station that would impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. We also organized for universal suffrage and coordinated poll observation in Brooklyn’s neighborhoods that were known to be vulnerable to voter disenfranchisement owing to racial and economic bias.
Fast forward a few years. After 9/11, I decided it was time to live abroad for reasons I may or may not share in a future post. A school in Changchun, China accepted me as a teacher on a short-term contract, and so I left NYC and my apartment in the care of a subletter and (then) friend.
The initial subletting arrangement was for four months, but I decided to stay in China. My subletter was happy to continue the arrangement—the apartment in Williamsburg was already below market rate by that point—but she changed her mind a few months later. To make a long story short, she initially agreed to deal with my stuff in one mutually beneficial way but ended up abandoning my possessions, the apartment, and (sadly) our friendship in such disarray that it:
- Sent all my things except for a computer—which a friend (you know who you are!) thankfully salvaged and donated to an independent news agency in Haiti—to the landfill;
- Lost me my deposit, which was worth multiple months’ salary in China; and
- Endangered my good standing with my landlord, who was a good-natured guy (I bought him a beer later in apology because, dear Lord, she had painted the walls a ridiculous purple, and also he had the same first name as my father and brother).
It took several weeks to realize that I had lost the apartment deposit, which was the money I had counted on to pay my way back to NYC. There was now no way home that I could hold. It took a little while longer to realize that I had lost everything that I had left in the apartment, including photos that were taken before the advent of digital media.
Spoiler alert: I lived.
Once over the initial anger at a lost friendship (she never contacted me again, which I chalk up to guilt) and fear over a loss of financial security, I found myself metabolizing my new reality. I was living in Asia until I could afford a way back. China was, until further notice, my one home. Everything I owned now fit in my backpack and weighed 28kg.
What I learned at life that day: One can choose to focus on loss, or one can choose to focus on what one still has.
It’s true that I had lost most of my worldly possessions, but I didn’t count on them for my daily existence. This was a blessing, and a testament to my privilege. I also didn’t have to pay to store them, which both saved me money and made me more mobile. I realized that the sentimental value I had placed on my things was tied more to the people than to the things. Over time, I felt more mobile, more free.
Literally, everything I now owned could fit on my back. I became a turtle. Half of my backpack’s contents were composed of an electric drill and “The Yale Shakespeare: Complete Works” (let’s just say this was before e-books).
After a year in Changchun, I moved to Dalian, China for a year. After that, I moved to Thailand for two years. I moved back to Oregon in 2005, but that was a choice made by me, not my possessions.
Losing almost everything I possessed was both the saddest and, ultimately, most freeing moment of my life so far.